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NEWS | June 9, 2014

IN 1937, Colorado Guard used flamethrowers and explosives against plague of locusts

By Army National Guard Maj. Adam Morgan Colorado National Guard

CENTENNIAL, Colo. - Just before World War II, the Colorado National Guard mobilized to fight an assault by a terrible scourge at home.

The enemy moved across the landscape in an unstoppable wave, a tsunami of insects munching its way through fields and gardens.

Billions of winged grasshoppers covered square mile after square mile of Colorado farmland.

The latest equipment was brought to bear, but the invading horde would not be stopped.

It was 1937, and times were already hard in America's midsection.

The Great Depression was in full swing. Many farmers were forced to abandon the Dust Bowl. Those who remained faced uncertainty.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were created to give jobs to the jobless.

Still, innovation and exploration were as much on the march as the hungry grasshoppers.

Families gathered around radios to hear Bing Crosby sing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" or President Franklin D. Roosevelt deliver a fireside chat. Amelia Earhardt set out to become the first woman to fly nonstop around the world, but her aircraft went missing short of the goal.

The drive for excellence and advancement while dealing with adversity forged a persona among Americans that would eventually help to win World War II and produce what would be called the "Greatest Generation."

Before these Americans were organized on the battlefield in the 1940s, however, many of them were serving the country as Guardsmen.

Each state had its own economy, major exports and compounded struggles. Colorado's major economic activity was agriculture and livestock. Drought conditions and falling prices waged a relentless war on the Colorado farmer.

During the summer of 1937, however, the battle was joined by a merciless army of countless grasshoppers, able to use a combination of air and ground maneuvers, mass movements and destructive capabilities to erase everything in its path.

They cut a swath of destruction across the southeastern portion of Colorado, and threatened to enter Kansas and New Mexico.

The Colorado Springs Gazette observed the insects were "eating anything they come to. All vegetation has been eaten with the exception of lambs-quarters. And they'll eat lambs-quarters if there's nothing else."

The problem had been detected the previous autumn. Entomologists spotted a large number of eggs in the region, perhaps carried to the area from Texas by east winds. Millions of nests, each with several dozen eggs, were discovered.

They hatched in June 1937.

Wingless at first, the hoppers crawled across the land like a shadow.

"Unable as yet to fly, the hungry hoppers chewed at fence posts, clothing, hair on cattle - practically anything they could find that would fill their hungry stomachs," Popular Science magazine reported later that year.

Brig. Gen. Alphonse J. Ardourel, Colorado's adjutant general, was asked to join a "war council'' to help develop tactics to destroy these dangerous invaders.

Gov. Teller Ammons declared a state of emergency, which brought the Guard to the front line.

"Some people are making jokes out of the fact that the National Guard was called into service to help fight the grasshopper plague," the governor said, "but it is one of the most serious situations that ever confronted Colorado and I only wish I had more trucks and equipment that could be thrown into this war on those insects."

One of the unconventional tactics was the use of flamethrowers fired from slow-moving trains.

According to the Gazette, this method proved unsuccessful in stopping the advance of the grasshoppers. However, it remained necessary as trains experienced difficulty stopping and starting on tracks made slippery by squashed grasshoppers, whose remnants made a soupy, slimy goo as the trains passed over them.

Motorists in eastern Colorado faced similar problems as crushed grasshoppers could suddenly make roads as slick as ice.

Authorities also tried explosives to slow the advancing insects, but that didn't work, either.

"We tried dynamiting," Ardourel told The Denver Post at the time. "They kept right on flying - just bounced a little and went on. These hoppers are terrible."

It was discovered that the grasshoppers would naturally follow the path of least resistance, so trenches were dug in many of the fields to divert the pests away from crops. The method was to create a small trench with the far side higher than the near side.

It was thought that when the hoppers encountered this obstacle, they would simply pile up and die. However, as with other attempts, success was limited and the idea was ultimately abandoned.

As these tactics were proving unsuccessful, the grasshopper population was growing rapidly.

The problem became so severe that Dr. J.R. Parker, the senior entomologist of the U.S. Bureau of Entomology and the man responsible for all grasshopper control in the west, visited Colorado Springs on Independence Day.

He threw his hat on the ground to trap the hoppers and was amazed to count 247 hoppers beneath his hat. Other areas were thought to have higher concentrations.

One estimate at the time was that a 10-square mile area contained 7 billion grasshoppers.

Farmers rigged their own contraptions in an attempt to the clear the pests from their land, according to the December 1937 issue of Popular Science. One enterprising farmer built a machine that scraped the grasshoppers from the ground and deposited them in a pan of oil.

The only way to defeat this enemy, it was decided, was to consider what drove them. In this case, the massive hoards of hoppers were hungry and sought only to consume what was available. The answer was to make a poison in a form the grasshoppers would eat.

Bran and poison were mixed with sawdust and loaded into large bags and staged for mass distribution. It was said that one bag of poison would kill six bags of grasshoppers.

The recipe was four sacks of sawdust, a half sack of bran, two gallons of sodium arsenite, eight ounces of amyl acetate, 15 gallons of water and two gallons of molasses.

It also threatened humans, however, and several men became sick from working around the poisoned bait. Workers were cautioned to wear gloves and keep their hands away from their mouth and eyes.

On June 28, 1937, the governor asked Ardourel and several hundred Guardsmen to distribute the poison over an area of 4,000 square miles and then help farmers spread it in the path of the hungry grasshoppers.

Before spreading the bait, it was necessary to have some idea of the grasshoppers' migration patterns. This was accomplished by painting them.

Civilian crop dusters as well as Colorado National Guard Army Air Corps planes were loaded with paints of different colors, which were dropped on the ambivalent hoppers, still obsessed with unrelenting consumption.

Some grasshoppers later were found 175 miles away from where they were painted.

Colorado Guardsmen and WPA and CCC members were enlisted to spread the poisoned bait. Some moved by train and others by truck.

Second Lt. Earl Read in the 168th Field Artillery turned in a mileage report in excess of 1,000 miles for his efforts to poison the hoppers.

"Our work was 99 percent transporting sawdust," Ardourel told Popular Science.

Colorado Army Air Corps planes joined this effort, as well, dropping the poisoned bait in a crop-dusting fashion.

The poison worked.

As the pests died off, the smell of millions of dead grasshoppers was more than some could take, and farmers temporarily moved their families away from the odor.

Some farmers who had suffered damaged crops quickly capitalized on the opportunity to sell the grasshopper corpses to bait shops around the country, which, as luck would have it, paid top dollar for this fisherman's favorite.

When it was all said and done, more than 31 million pounds of the toxic bait was spread across the state, costing more than half a million dollars.

However, while more than $3 million of crops were lost to the hoppers, stopping the advancing insects resulted in saving an estimated $9 million worth of crops.

As the Colorado National Guard celebrates more than 150 years of service to the state and nation, the battle against the grasshoppers still stands as proof that America's Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen have always been ready to serve, regardless of the threat.



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